Pivano Blues – On Nanda’s Road: Venice Film Review

Italian literary icon Fernanda Pivano is celebrated alongside the American poets she translated and the rock stars she influenced.

A contagiously enthusiastic celebration of the Italian intellectual and translator Fernanda Pivano, who died in 2009.

For anyone doubting the effect a great translator can have on literary history, Pivano Blues – On Nanda’s Road will change their mind. In acontagiously enthusiastic celebration of the influential Italian intellectual Fernanda Pivano, who died in 2009, filmmaker and journalist Teresa Marchesi shows how her ground-breaking translations of Hemingway and Beat Generation poets opened Italy up to modern American literature and thought. On-camera testimonials are given by some of the greatest writers and rock stars of the day: Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Italian rockers Ligabue and Vasco Rossi, not to mention Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hermingway and Jack Kerouac, with whom she worked very closely.

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Early in the film Pivano remembers watching Hemingway write from 5 to 11 a.m. in the morning. One day, he threw a page she judged excellent into the trash because, he angrily announced, “A single wrong word can destroy an entire page.” Looking behind Kerouac’s “insolent and arrogant” public mask, which he displays in a historic TV interview with her, she pronounces him an “uncertain and desperate” man. Her relationship with Ginsberg was also very close and the poet appears several times at her side, reading from his work.

Born in Genoa in 1917 into an anti-fascist family, Pivano was arrested for translating A Farewell to Arms on the grounds the novel offended the Armed Forces of the Fascist regime (it was published after the war.) Her strong love of freedom expressed itself in her passion for post-war American writing. Italy was a prudish, repressive country when she translated Howl in 1964, 10 years after it was banned in the U.S.; many of its obscenities were bowdlerized by the Italian publisher, with Pivano acting as a mediator with the poet. 

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Looking a bit like Ingrid Bergman in her youth, she spent her final years in a Milan apartment stacked to the rafters with books and papers. Marchesi captures her sunny spirit which shines like a beacon of intelligence over the years of rare TV and archive footage.

She is well-known for popularizing poetry outside academia and for conferring on certain folk and rock singers like Bob Dylan the status of poets. Her unfettered way of looking at the words of the 20th century made her an icon for young Italians, who flocked to her lectures and public appearances.

As the film draws to a celebratory close, Patti Smith (“Wing”) and Lou Reed (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”) dedicate songs to Pivano in live performances, while George Clooney seeks her out for a chat at the Venice Film Festival. Though there are a lot of tie-ins for international audiences, many will meet Italy’s biggest music names for the first time: Fabrizio de Andre, Vasco Rossi, Luciano Ligabue and Jovanotti, for instance, who talk on camera about their debt to “Nanda.” 

Interludes of bright, animated paintings by artist and filmmaker Ursula Ferrara enliven the standard interview/archive footage format and suggest Nanda’s rainbow personality.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Italian Controcampo), Sept. 4, 2011.

Production companies: Michele Concina e Associazione, Fernanda Pivano Generation
Director: Teresa Marchesi
Producer: Teresa Marchesi
Screenwriter: Teresa Marchesi
Music: Litfiba
Editor: Danilo Galli
78 minutes.